Developing research and higher education on animal biodiversity and wildlife conservation in the Caribbean

Portrait of Christopher Cambrone, doctoral student in Guadeloupe

Wed 20 Dec, 2017

Christopher is 25 years old. Originally from Guadeloupe, he was one of the first students to be supported by the Caribaea Initiative, as part of our training grant scheme. After completing a master’s degree at the University of Burgundy in France and carrying out his research projects in Guadeloupe on the White-crowned Pigeon in partnership with the ONCFS, he will start this year, also in Guadeloupe, his 3-year thesis project entitled “Biology and genetics of populations of the White-crowned Pigeon, Patagioenas leucocephala: application to the management and conservation of the species.” We want to thank Christopher who answered the interview and explained his career path with great frankness.

1) Could you briefly tell us how you came to study animals in their habitats?

When I was younger, I loved watching animal documentaries. I could spend the afternoon in front of them. Now, I still like to watch them, but through my training I have become more critical regarding the explanations that the documentaries are giving. But I have to admit that it wasn’t my dream job when I was a child. I first wanted to become an emergency doctor. But after high school, I was interested in joining the scientific police. That’s why I went to Dijon to follow a biology course. But I discovered ecology and evolution during my first bachelor’s year and, from that moment on, I chose to pursue my studies in this field. Then I had to choose between two curricula, conservation biology or behavioral ecology. I liked both of them. I finally chose to study behavioral ecology under the recommendations of the teaching staff and due to the professional future that was opening up to me thanks to the Caribaea Initiative.

2) What do you hope your training will lead you to?

I hope to become a professor and researcher in this field. I like to teach and pass on the knowledge that I have acquired to future generations. In fact, during my university studies, I gave private tuition to help college students to pass the Brevet des Collèges (French certificate of general education) and I really enjoyed being among them and interacting with them. Ideally I would like to obtain a position in Guadeloupe and become, through hard work, a person respected for his scientific skills.

3) What does your daily work consist of?

My daily work is to study the White-crowned Pigeon. This pigeon is an endemic Colombidae species of the Caribbean region, with proprietary and hunting interests in some Caribbean islands. This means that this species is of particular interest to local populations, particularly through hunting. This is a problem on Guadeloupe. Despite being listed on the IUCN Red List as “Near Threatened”, the species is hunted there without proper scientific monitoring and without a concrete management plan. From a scientific point of view, the species is poorly known. The spatial and temporal dynamics of the population remain uncertain, partly due to difficult access to feeding grounds and roosting sites.

That is why during my Master’s project I compared two methods of counting in order to be able to follow, as precisely as possible, the population trends of the White-crowned Pigeon. I spent 4 months in the field doing my censuses, and for the remaining time I was in the laboratory doing DNA extractions. These genetic analyses, far from being exhaustive in terms of sampling, allowed us to get a first idea of the population genetic structure at the scale of Guadeloupe and the Caribbean region.

photo 4bisDuring my thesis, I will continue my study on the White-Crowned Pigeon and follow three major axes:

– Estimation of Caribbean population size by combining demographic and genetic data.
– Establishing the degree of connectivity between populations through the movement of individuals and the study of gene flow between island populations.
– Comparing past and present genetic diversity of this species.

The aims of this study are to learn more about the species, to confirm the status of the species and to propose an adapted management plan based on collected data.

The job of a researcher in the field of animal ecology is to understand how animals evolve in their natural environment, by taking into account the biotic and abiotic factors in their environment. In ecology, biotic factors represent the interactions between living organisms in an ecosystem. In contrast, abiotic factors are the non-living chemical and physical parts of the environment that affect living organisms. Roughly speaking, this profession involves bringing additional knowledge at more or less precise scales that help or will help to understand the environment (biotic and abiotic) in which we evolve.

4) In a few words, if you had to explain to a child who did not know the White-Crowned Pigeon, what would you say to present it?

Pigeon couronne blanche-Guadeloupe_2The White-Crowned Pigeon is a species of Columbidae, of the same family as the common pigeon you can see in town, but the top of its head is white, that’s why we call it White-Crowned Pigeon. In anatomy, the top of the head is called “crown”.

It’s a beautiful bird, nothing like the common/domesticated pigeons. It is found only in the Caribbean region and the species travels among the islands according to the seasons.

Like all species on Earth, it plays an important role in the place where it lives. For example, it spreads or disperses seeds by feeding on berries, which allows plants eaten by this species to move from one place to another, and thus cross long-distances.

5) What fascinates you the most about this bird?

We don’t know much about this species and that motivates me to study it, especially since it is threatened. The White-crowned Pigeon is classified as “NT – Near Threatened” on the IUCN Red List. This means the species is close to the threshold of threatened species, as would be the case if no specific conservation measures were taken.

Moreover, it’s a discrete species, difficult to observe in some areas, especially in Guadeloupe. I feel immensely privileged to watch and study this bird.

6) What is hidden in your research briefcase?

P1040892Research can be easily carried out, especially in ecology, where it can be done through observations, with a sheet of paper and a pencil to take notes and collect data. Anyone can do fieldwork! Where the researcher distinguishes himself is that he has a solid theoretical framework which enables him to gather with precision the data of interest to the study, and by developing a structured experimental plan. Finally, the researcher is able to extract biological or ecological conclusions through data collected in the field or in the laboratory.

For the genetic part of my study project, I need a laboratory with equipment to extract and amplify the DNA. For example I use thermocyclers that allow me to carry out PCR (polymerase chain reaction). PCR is a molecular biology method that allows the acquisition of a very large amount of DNA or RNA from a small quantity. Before that, I have to extract the DNA from biological samples taken from the individuals studied (e. g. a blood sample, a feather) using extraction kits.

7) What motivates you in this profession?

I am thrilled to contribute to the preservation of our beautiful Caribbean region which is characterized by landscapes, culture and a unique biodiversity.

8) Do you think your work will have an impact on the public?

Due to the nature of my study project, my work will have an impact on the public because the White Crowned pigeon is a species hunted in Guadeloupe. My results will help in the development of management plans for the species.

9) Do you think that society is changing positively in terms of ecology and the environment?

The only thing I can say is that the environment and its protection are becoming an increasingly significant part of our society. It is enough to look over time at the evolution of the debates during the presidential elections. Time devoted to this subject is increasingly important. Unfortunately, the road ahead is still long, there are still too many economic decisions that are contrary to the preservation of the environment.

10) What was your greatest professional success?

During my training. I have completed my studies with a very good academic record, and proved to the people who invested in my success that this was not in vain.

11) What would you say to a young person wishing to start studying animal conservation?

If that’s what you really want to do: WORK HARD, give all you can to get there and surround yourself with the right people. If I made it, you can make it. You just have to invest a minimum in what you are going to undertake and if you encounter obstacles, keep in mind the goal you want to achieve.

12) What do you think are the main conservation challenges in the Caribbean?

Cohesion is needed between the different Caribbean territories in order to act in unison, as the majority of Caribbean species do not live in just a single Caribbean territory. To achieve this, conservation leaders in the Caribbean need to be Caribbean, because conservation biology also has a social aspect that requires an understanding of the needs and/or culture of local human populations, and who other than a person living in the Caribbean region, who knows and practices local culture, can better contribute to its protection and understand local communities?

13) If you could encourage people to do one thing for Caribbean animal species, what would be your choice?

The first step is to inform them about what biodiversity is and what can be done at different scales to preserve it. Then I will encourage them to do what they feel capable of doing, such as for example supporting a local association dedicated to biodiversity and/or acting directly within one of them.

14) What is your motto?

Kimbé red, pa moli (in English: hold on, don’t give up). I like to believe willpower is the engine of success.

Stage master-CCambrone-Pigeon couronne blche

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